Guest Column: Mindfulness, Mastery, and the Cultivation of Presence

As a musician, educator, and lifelong learner, one of the most inhibiting mistakes that I have observed in students and clients is the tendency to favor the results over the process.

In the amateur’s mind in any field, the swiftness with which a piece of information can be sent out over the internet seems to be the same speed with which we can also learn and consolidate large amounts of information. I see this far too often in young musicians who see some impressive young musical savant on YouTube, and assume that with just one year of study they too can sound just as good.

Of course, having been a musician for 20 years, as well as a consultant for musicians, artists, and creatives from varying disciplines, I can attest to the reality, which is that quality and true learning do not happen in a short amount of time.

As we will see, to believe so is to deny a fundamental truth about the nature of our design as humans.

Human Consciousness and the Evolution of Mastery

What may be hard for us to believe in our day and age is that our early human ancestors who first stepped out onto the grasslands of East Africa over six million years ago were disappointingly weak creatures.

Though able to walk on two legs, these early hominids were still yet no match for the four-legged hunters who pursued them in the surrounding terrain. When we fast forward through those six million years and inventory the state of our existence today, we note a remarkable evolution in both our physical and conscious abilities.

In a world thriving with technology and hyper-connectivity, one should wonder how it is that we managed to evolve from the state of our early hominid ancestors into the powerful Homo sapiens that we currently are today. After all, six million years on the evolutionary timetable is a disproportionately fast turnaround. What was the cause?

Historians like Yuval Noah Harari and Robert Greene have posited that this astonishing transformation resulted due to two developments: Firstly, our rapid maturation in visual acuity, and secondly, our highly cohesive social interactions, which include the ability to communicate and conceptualize through the use of fictive language.

Ultimately, however, being such feeble creatures in the intensely grueling and highly dangerous terrain of the savanna, our early ancestors’ survival depended largely on the quality of their attention. Through the use of skilled, focused attention, our early hominid ancestors were able to scan the terrain more rapidly, identify threats, and plan their intentions accordingly.

Given that the closest common ancestor of Homo sapiens is the Chimpanzee, which interestingly suggests that we ourselves are merely highly evolved animals, we can see that the evolution of our consciousness began from that of an animal.

The attention of most animals is locked directly to what is immediately within their field of vision. Slowly, and over a relatively short period of time, through a mechanistic need to survive and adapt to the demands of the environment, the various species that comprised the genus Homo for over 4 million years slowly overcame this weakness and began to operate cognitively in a more conceptual way i.e. thinking about things that were not within the immediate field of vision.

As we shall see, this ability to think abstractly and therefore about things which are not within our immediate field of vision (i.e. not real), has simultaneously become one of our greatest strengths as a species, and still yet one of our greatest weaknesses of all.

Archeologists have calculated that the first stone tools utilized by the early species belonging to the genus Homo are dated as early as 2.5 million years ago. Unlike the four-legged creatures who rivaled our early human ancestors, early humans were able to fashion elaborate stone tools which further aided them in hunting, gathering, and eventually developing agriculture.

In order to develop from a primitive animal whose abilities comprised little more than foraging, our human ancestors needed to work diligently on a single tool for an extended amount of time.

Historian Robert Greene suggests that this critical period marked an important transition in the cognitive abilities of primitive humans: it embellished and further developed our ability to focus deeply on a single task, thereby allowing us to “think inside” what we were doing.

This same kind of deep, consistent, repetitious process is similar to the kind of intensely directed focus utilized by scholars, musicians, artists, and creatives all throughout history. Without this ability, some of our greatest accomplishments as humans may never have been made possible.

Additionally, however, the ability to think conceptually and “inside” certain tasks was also the germination of what has become a very dangerous phenomenon in the modern mind of Homo sapiens today.

Stimulus Independent Thought

Have you ever been doing something for an extended period of time, perhaps working on a work report or school assignment, and found yourself lost in thought about something entirely unrelated to the activity at hand? This sometimes happens when we’re carrying out a mundane task like cleaning or organizing.

Other times, it takes places while we’re passively waiting for something to happen. Some researchers have compared these kinds of states to Flow States, states where we become so immersed in one activity or thought process that we lose our sense of time perspective and surroundings.

Other researchers have argued that this may be the basis of anxiety through what is called Stimulus-Independent Thought. But a rather curious question to ask yourself about these kinds of mental states is:

“Did you choose to have these thoughts?”

Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris recognizes processes similar to these as stimulus independent thought, that is, brain activity which takes place in the midline regions of the brain, namely, the medial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex.

Stimulus independent thought occurs most often when we are disengaged with intentional activity and are doing nothing more than biding our time.

In the research of Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, using a smartphone app which enabled people to monitor their ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions, Gilbert and Killingsworth concluded that, “…people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and … doing so typically makes them unhappy.”

The study actually determined that people spent roughly 46.9% of time lost in these stimulus independent thoughts, thereby dramatically increasing experiences of unhappiness. This means that while we may have the illusion of being in complete control of our thoughts and ideas, we actually spend about half of our waking lives in thoughts that we did not necessarily choose to have.

While the rapid evolution of human consciousness has allowed us to solve seemingly insurmountable problems, the very same mechanism that allows us to think deeply and attentively, when gone unchecked, has the potential for catastrophic impacts on our personal and creative lives.

What we’ll soon see is that our attention and our ability to deepen our attention is not something that we are born with, but rather, is something that we teach ourselves each and every day. More importantly, it is something that we teach ourselves when we least expect that we might be, and our ability to develop rich relationships or to create great art depends fundamentally on our ability to focus solely on what is in front of us.

What we must realize is that behind the noise of all of our racing thoughts is a machine that generates them (i.e. the mind) This machine, built upon millions of years of hardware granted through evolutionary processes, is naturally designed to improve and attain mastery of any task.

And so, what our success or failure ultimately depends on is not some sort of esoteric secret or mysterious technique, but rather, a profound ability to direct our minds in the direction of our intentions, and thereby work diligently on the work at hand, while protecting ourselves from our tendency to become lost in unrelated mental activity.

The Illustration of a Distracted Mind

Surprisingly, many people do not realize just how distracted our minds really are. We often claim to have laser-like focus because we’ve experienced some degree of victory in our lives, but when faced with an unexpected challenge, it would seem that all of that focus is outside of our grasp and we are ultimately left to our primitive tendencies of anger, frustration, and disappointment.

To illustrate this reality, a simple exercise can be used:

⦁ Set a timer for 1 minute
⦁ Sit in a comfortable position with your hands in your lap
⦁ Close your eyes
⦁ Slowly inhale and exhale deeply
⦁ Focus your attention ONLY on your breath, noticing each time that your attention goes elsewhere
⦁ When you notice your attention go anywhere besides the breath (and it will), simply notice the change of focus and calmly return to the breath
⦁ Repeat this for the entire minute
At the completion of this exercise, stop to consider the following questions:
⦁ Considering that my original intention was to focus on my breath, did I choose to stop thinking about my breath whenever I did?
⦁ Did it seem to happen automatically without my control?
⦁ Have I ever experience something similar to this when reading, working on something at my job, or in conversation?

Surprisingly, what we may be most afraid to admit, is that we experience this very same kind of distracted mind in just about all aspects of life, most dangerously, when we are learning or working on something important.

For artists and musicians, practicing with a cell phone or computer nearby is a sure indicator of an unproductive practice session. In fact, a simple break in focus and attention due to an external stimulus is so devastating to the learning process that a sustained practice session in any activity with frequent external disruptions (i.e. a cell phone) is almost the same as not practicing at all.

This means that we can log any amount of practice or work hours in any discipline, be frequently distracted due to external stimuli, and in the end, only reap the benefits of a fraction of those efforts.

The Result of a Distracted Mind

There’s a beautifully written book by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, Tai Chi Chuan world champion, and chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin called The Art of Learning, in which he explains the following:

“Our obstacle is that we live in an attention deficit culture. We are bombarded with more and more information on television, radio, cell phones, video games, the Internet. The constant supply of stimulus has the potential to turn us into addicts, always hungry for something new and pre-fabricated to keep us entertained. Once nothing exciting is going on, we might get bored, distracted, separated from the moment. So we look for new entertainment, surf channels, flip through magazines. If caught in these rhythms, we are like tiny current bound surface fish, floating along a two dimensional world without any sense for the gorgeous abyss below. When these societally induced tendencies translate into the learning process, they have a devastating effect.”

Indeed, this constant supply of stimulus, albeit a very valuable one in many ways, not only has the capacity to greatly inhibit our ability to learn, but also can have devastating effects on our personal lives as well.

In a 2016 study published in the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, researchers found that, “…SM (Social Media) use was significantly associated with increased depression.” The direct causes of this are still yet to be accurately determined, but having left social media almost two years ago, the first change I immediately noticed was how much more time I had to devote to creative projects.

It would seem absurd if I told you that we have a literal addiction to our technology and media, much the same way that an individual may be addicted to an addictive substance, but individuals like Tristan Harris have pioneered the way for individuals to realize just how often our attention is being hijacked by the applications and media we consume on a daily basis.

Through his work, Harris has exposed the departments at tech companies whose sole purpose is to determine how to make user experience more addictive in mobile applications.

In doing so, Harris has started a movement to create a system of technological ethics for tech startups to abide by in hopes of making the technology we consume safer and less dangerous to our mental health.

Ultimately, what is worth remembering is that a majority of the applications that consumers use on a daily basis are designed specifically to interact with unconscious brain activity that is entirely unbeknownst to the user at any given moment.

Cultivating Quality in the Present Moment

When consulting for creatives and musicians, one of the first items I try to tackle is the problem of attention. Many of us fail to realize just how distracted we are, and when this goes unchecked, we become a victim of our own minds, rather than the operator of them.

It is true that we can never be in complete control of our thoughts and actions, as any experienced meditator can tell you. It is simply just not possible to have full control of the processes that take place within our minds.

However, the things that we do and the decisions we make about how to spend our time serve as a literal training for our future moments of high pressure when everything is on the line. Many people believe that at some undefined future period, an opportunity to “turn it on” will arise, and we will perform better than we ever have before.

But those who have ever taken a high-stakes audition, or who have performed a solo recital, or who have competed in the martial arts can tell you that the opposite is actually true.

The truth is that there are no big moments, only small ones, and the manner in which we direct our attention and efforts in each of the small moments is what will determine what will happen in those critical moments when we have to perform at our best.

A habitually busied and distracted practitioner is a habitually busied and distracted performer.

There is no way around this. In each and every moment of our lives, we are either in control of our circumstances, attentively directing the ebb and flow of our consciousness, or we are pulled and pushed by external stimulation, lost like current bound surface fish.

How we spend this moment will ultimately determine how we spend future moments, and if we intend to be able to create under wild and implausible pressures, we would be keen to see our training not as what we do when we say we are training, but what we are doing at all other moments of the day.

The more that we surrender our minds to some fruitless, external attempt to hijack our attention, the more we are training ourselves to operate at that very same process.

Only by seeing the small, insignificant moments as the truly valuable moments, the greater off we will be while operating under the greatest pressures we ever imagined. Attention is something we train every day, and only until we broaden our awareness to this truth, we’ll continually float along the current, patiently waiting for the world to decide our circumstances for us.




By Gabriel Fernandez – Special to the Herald-Post

Gabe Fernandez is a creative consultant, director of education, and co-founder at thChrch, a creative accelerator in El Paso, Texas. He works with students, bands, artists, and creatives to help solve creative and entrepreneurial obstacles in major project releases.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from The University of Texas at El Paso and is currently pursuing his M. Ed. from the University of Texas at El Paso. He writes at and can be reached at